Thoughts from the Willamette Writers Conference: Part Two

Here’s the introductory post!

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The first day (on Thursday) was only a half-day basically consisted of meeting everybody. There were two class-like things you could do, one about succeeding at the Conference and the other about finding the right agent, and then a competition for who had the best Pitch (a pitch, if you don’t know, is talking directly to an agent/publisher, as opposed to the query letter via email or snail mail. It’s even more condensed than a query, if you can believe it).

I went to the success at the Conference basics class, and it was about what I expected it to be. But a pivotal thing happened: somehow, when one of the panelists asked me what my story was about (in reference to a discussion about complicated worlds/settings), somehow what came out of my mouth was: coming of age horror.

Which certainly covers certain elements of my novel (she’s younger, and the story is very dark with some creepy monsters), it didn’t cover the main elements. But it didn’t really matter, because the entire room went:

Ooooooo ~ !

Which was pretty dang encouraging. And put my story in a new light I hadn’t considered from it before. So I began to think of it differently, pondering on all of it’s possibilities. And then people started coming up after the class, asking to hear more about my idea. Which was both very encouraging and helped with forming how I wanted my pitch to sound.

I stayed for the Pitch for the Prize Competition even though I wasn’t going to participate (I didn’t feel my pitch was ready) to make sure I was on the right track about how to pitch. Now. I signed up for a Pitch and I knew it was important, but it didn’t hit me until this point that I was pitching to a publisher who could want my book and possibly sell it. Somewhere halfway through the competition I started not feeling so good.

Fast forward a few hours, and I was home and kinda rather freaking out about my pitch. The sentences for my pitch didn’t work together. I couldn’t say them out loud without stumbling over them. It was too much information. There wasn’t enough information. It didn’t flow right; didn’t sound conversational or easy.

On and on and on.

Which was very frustrating for me, because I knew that if I worried about this pitch the whole weekend, I wouldn’t enjoy the conference as much as I could. Thankfully, my lovely and wonderful partner talked it through with me for a while, and then made me go to sleep. He’s also a writer, with much more technical than me, and talking it through with him always brings clarity.

Somewhere between sleep, the encouragement and help, and repeatedly telling myself that the Conference was for learning and fun and wasn’t going to make or break my career, Saturday morning was much better.

Weird writer self-loathing freak over with!

I met a friend during the opening ceremony (tip: if anyone is ever standing alone, GO UP AND SAY HI. Most people are there trying to work up the nerve to say hi as well. It often starts a conversation that will at least last a class, if not the day or beyond the conference. I feel like 99% of people there are looking to make friends. And 99% of those are introverts and don’t really know how to make a conversation either.) who went with me to the first class I attended: Agents’ Tips for Successful Queries and Proposals.

Jill Marr from Dijikstra Literary Agency and Clair Gerus were there and, after giving an overview of query-making, answered everyone’s questions. It was mostly standard, but in the discussion of writing a great hook, something interesting was posed: your hook could be why you’re querying that person. Ms. Marr said that she’s much more likely to read a query that immediately shows the sender has done research on the agent and the agent’s desires.

Anyway, food for thought.

My next class was Research Strategies and Methods for Writing Historical Fiction taught by Judson Roberts. Roberts writes early Viking Historical Fiction, and walked us through his process on how he goes about writing something like that. He stressed the most important part was to always start with the general and then move to the specific. In other words, start with a overview book about Vikings times, figure out something you’re interested in, and then start delving deeper. The basics were to finds as many original sources of information (exactly like writing a research paper for college) for the time period that you’re interested in writing, because the author will filter and have their own interpretations that are not necessarily correct. Putting your own interpretations on original sources are half the fun, anyway.

So the advice was basically the same for researching characters of the same era. Roberts said to get as much information as you can about particular characters, and that stories from other eras will often have character-pieces about the people you’re writing about. Then the playing with the details can begin: just enough to be fun, but not so much as you’re historically “inaccurate” and loose authenticity.

Roberts also stressed to try to go to the place you’re writing about (if you have the means, of course). There are things that are can seen/heard/smelled that can’t necessarily be understood unless you go there. For example, ruins on cliffs that are never talked about but your characters would see (or that you could incorporate into your story!), what it smells like on this particular street, what the trees look like, etc, etc, etc.

It was all very good info.

Then it was lunch time, and my newfound friend and I drove down to a French bakery she works at. Apparently, she follows the agent she was pitching to on Twitter, and found out that the agent has been looking for the perfect apple turnover. Lone behold, my newfound friend works at a French bakery. Like, a real French bakery.

So we trotted down there and got her thing, and I got a chocolate covered pistachio macaron for FREE. Probably the best thing I’ve eaten EVER. That was AWESOME.

After lunch, I headed to The Wonder of World Building by Karen Azinger while my newfound friend headed to her pitch. We did some practicing and some encouragement and off she went.

World Building was quite neat and informative. It was very structured, and looked at each different aspect of making a world and how important it was to develop from the stand-point of your story. She included in her important aspects to look at: Language (and then Foreign Language), Architecture, Culture, Maps, Religion, Government, Monetary System, and Magic. This is all in the context of Science Fiction and Fantasy, mind you.

Azinger had us all write out diagrams with three columns, and in the first column we wrote down our main characters and our main themes. In the next column, you wrote down the skills the character uses to accomplish his/her goals, or the tools you use as a writer to express the theme you’re depicting. In the third and final column, you wrote down what elements of the list were most important to your story to develop.

Here is a quick (and rudimentary) one that I did:

20150810_172244

As you can see, culture, government, and magic are pretty important elements in how my characters use and perceive the world around them (A quick note about magic: Azinger stressed that the laws surrounding magic were particularly important when developing a magical society. And the laws/limits of magic should be believable and the same for everyone otherwise you lose your reader).

From there, you can separate out the things that are not important to develop. You can add the “flavor” of the things being present in the world, but do not have to explain or highly develop them. In fact, it can become boring to the reader to do so. Language is slightly important to my story due to my MC’s research taking her into old Latin texts, but I can simply add the “flavor” of things by adding a Latin word here and there but keeping the rest in English. Then it feels fully developed without having to learn Latin (or make up a whole new language: see Tolkein). On the other hand, the monetary system and religion are next to not important at all. I can just mention Euros at some point in my story (since this one does take place in Europe), and the readers can fill in the rest. A similar situation for religion.

Making up a religion, by the way, is much more interesting than borrowing from an already present one (if it’s important in your story). You could combine two religions together (like Buddhism and Islam in Frank Herbert’s Dune). And Azinger also mentioned (somewhat jokingly) that all Epic Fantasy since Tolkein has to have a map; it’s practically a requirement to have one in the first pages of the book.

Architecture, by the way, is rather important whether you think about it or not. It often sets mood, character, and description of the scene. It’s something to think about; and also something that probably should have unique characteristics per city or place.

Almost at the end of the class, my newfound friend came back very excited that her pitch went well. The agent requested 30 pages, and a request to see more is the best you can get at one of those! I’m very excited for her and hope there are all good things happening there.

And this, my friends, is where I’m going to stop. Alas, I have two more classes on Friday and Saturday to get through before I’m done. But we’re already over 1,600 words and I’ve much more to get through!

Stay tuned! 😉

The next segment can be found here.

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About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. My characters are pretty much always clamoring for attention in my head, and if I don't listen to them, they plague me with insane dreams and nightmares until I start writing. I also raise dairy goats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. I've just recently begun my foray into the writing world and look forward to it all with devilish glee. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

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